When I was growing up in the 1950’s lights were rare in my neighborhood. I remember the first lights I saw. My family moved into the huge house above in 1952 after a church fight in which my father, a pastor, and 300 parishioners left St. Marks Presbyterian church to organize Central Congregational Church. During the time before a new church building was found and purchased the church met at Crossman School on Sundays while all other activities were held at the house above. We lived on the second floor, church activities were on the first floor and in the very large recreatuion room in the basement. My sister and I shared the bedroom marked with the red X. On the side was a window (marked Z) that we could look out of at night and see a house in the next block outlined in multicolored lights. We called it the gingerbread house and thought it was beautiful and unique. I don’t remember ever riding by when the lights were on. We lived on the westside of Detroit while one set of grandparents lived on the eastside. Driving from one house to the other we would be coming home after dark and I remember looking at people’s lit Christmas trees through the windows, I don’t remember any outdoor lights. In later years that changed. I think my west side grandparents eventually had lights and some carolers out in front. My youngest son always wanted to put lights outside our house but since we lived at the end of a dead end road in the middle of the Manistee National Forest at the time, it never happened.
My family did not send out Christmas cards when I was growing up. Probably because all the relatives lived in Detroit and we saw them during the holidays. We usually had a good number of cards to display across the mantle though because my mother was a teacher and she brought home all the cards her students gave her. I did make some cards in elementary school that I found in my mother’s things. My grandparents aka Nanny and Poppy received cards from friends they kept in touch with from the days they lived in Montgomery. Often these were photograph cards. Because they kept the past years cards in a brass Chinese bowl on a table in the front room, under the table actually, I watched some stranger kids grow up from year to year.
When I grew up and moved out of Detroit I started sending and receiving cards. When we didn’t have a mantle we displayed them across the top of the bookcase that ran across one side of the living room. The years two of my daughters had paper routes we had lots of cards. For some reason I’ve saved these along with the family and friend cards. Every year when I go through them I think I should glean these but I don’t.
For five or six years when we were homeschooling our family put out a monthly newsletter. It gave the kids a chance to use their writing skills and gave the family and friends a chance to see that they weren’t growing up illiterate. We would add a Christmas message on the back page. That is about as close to a Christmas letter as I got.
The most meaningful card I’ve saved over the years is the last one my mother-in-law, Theola Davenport Williams, sent me the Christmas before she died. It included a letter on the inside. I re-read it every holiday season. I wish we had traveled to St. Louis that season to visit but we didn’t.
This photo is from a small black album I got from my uncle Henry. It had a lot of small photographs that look like they were cut from a contact sheet. They were pasted on themed pages, a page for my father, a page for each of his siblings, a page for several close family friends, etc. The pages and pictures aren’t labeled. I hope my aunts can shed some light on who the people in the picture are and if it was taken at the Meadows near Detroit. Judging by the ages of the people I know in the album I think the photos were taken in the early 1940’s.
When I was growing up we had the ornaments that my mother bought over the years. I don’t remember making decorations in school. Maybe because the elementary school I attended was mostly Jewish or maybe in the 1950’s we didn’t make decorations. I don’t know. We didn’t string popcorn or cranberries. Wait! I think i remember a construction paper chain my sister and/or I made. It was short in length and in use.
In 2008 my sister and I decided to get our children and grandchildren together and decorate ornaments for the Christmas tree. I ordered clear plastic bulbs and craft paint and brushes. My sister offered her house. On the appointed day we gathered for pizza, eggnog and decorating. The table in the dining room was covered, another table was set up, t-shirts and aprons went on over clothes and the fun began. Everybody, including interested adults, painted several ornaments. They popped open and the insides were painted then the ornament was popped back together. You can see in the photo that they were bright, clear, colorful. Unfortunately what you don’t see is that the paint never dried. It puddled on the bottom of the ornament and if there were multiple colors, which there often were, the puddle turned a muddy brownish/gray. We hung them on the trees anyway and packed them away hoping they’d look better the next year. They didn’t, although I think they were dry. I wonder what the grandchildren remember about it. I’ll have to check this year.
This is the Dec. 2 entry for the GeneaBlogger Advent Calandar.
Did your family or ancestors serve traditional dishes for the holidays? Was there one dish that was unusual?
For Christmas we ate the same thing we ate for Thanksgiving. When I was younger we always went to my mother’s parents for dinner. My mother’s sister and her three daughters would also be there, usually they rode with us. My mother’s parents were from Alabama and we had a pretty traditional southern meal of turkey with corn bread dressing with side dishes. My grandfather taught my grandmother to cook when they married and he always cooked the turkey himself in an old gas stove in the basement. It was one of those with the long legs. With the turkey, we had candied sweet potatoes (no marshmellows!), rice, turnip or collard greens, corn pubbing and green beans. My grandmother made her salad, which was great but I would never make. She cut up lettuce and onions very tiny and added lots of mayonaise. There was a relish plate with carrot and celery sticks, olives and tomatoes and always fresh, hot biscuits.
They ate an early dinner and when we left there we would go to my paternal grandparents and have desert. There would be sweet potato or pumpkin pie and mince meat pie and fruitcake. The pies were homemade. The fruitcake was store bought. These were served with store bought eggnog and lots of political discussion. My other cousins would be there and we had another bunch of gifts to open.
For several years we ate dinner at home and we had the same things except no greens and no Nanny’s salad or biscuits. We also had macaroni and cheese and brown and serve rolls. My mother was a teacher and we did not have lots of Christmas baking. Perhaps a pie or two. I almost forgot the box of chocolate cherries and the large box of Sanders Miniature Chocolates. Wish I had a box coming this Christmas! Above is a shot of me, my mother and my sister posing with the remains of a turkey. Probably taken around 1966. I remember one traumatic Christmas when the oven was broken and my mother had to cook the turkey in a stand alone oven. Somehow a wire in the top touched the turkey while it was baking and left a greenish mark. My mother said we might all be poisoned and threw the whole turkey out! We “borrowed” some turkey from my grandmother and dinner went on but no leftover turkey for snacks.
Our tree was always real. My sister, my mother and I would go to a tree lot to pick it about a week before Christmas. This was Detroit and in my memory it is cold and there is snow on the ground. We picked short needled trees of medium height and (of course) well shaped. We used a mix of glass balls my mother had collected over the years. When we were old enough, I can’t remember when that was, we helped decorate the tree – after my mother put on the beads, the tinsel and the multicolored lights. We had the big lights but they were pointy. My grandparents had round lights. The icicles went on last and there was no tossing. It was put on a few pieces at a time up and down all the branches. I remember one year that my mother did not want to trim the tree and was pretty unpleasant about my sister and me doing it and doing it NOW, but usually it was a pleasant evening, either Christmas eve or close to it. My mother usually had on the CBC, the Canadian station and by that time they would be playing Christmas music. The tree was always beautiful.
My maternal grandparents, Nanny and Poppy, waited until Christmas eve to buy the tree and set it up. The tree was always scrawny and thin but that was how their tree was supposed to be. Their ornaments were very old. I wonder what happened to them. What I remember are some little Santas that went on the tree and a jolly Father Christmas looking Santa that stood in the window with his removable pipe. My paternal grandparents had a bigger house and a big, full, long needled tree that was in the corner of the living room next to the stairs. My uncles Louis and Hugh plus my aunt Barbara and cousin Ernie lived there in addition to my grandparents so there were always a lot of presents under the tree.
The black and white photographs are all from the same Christmas. I think it was about 1962. I was still in high school, about 15. My sister was two years younger. Unfortunately these were all taken with a polaroid and they show it. The colored photo is from 1968. We had moved into the flat we shared with my grandparents. They were downstairs and we were upstairs. I had just graduated from Wayne State University and was about to head out into the world to seek my fortune. But that’s another story.
I have never participated in a carnival of genealogy before. I thought about it but never took the plunge. After reading Jasia’s contribution about her tinkering father I started thinking about the handy men in my family. On my father’s side his brother Hugh Cleage was called on when things needed to be fixed. My husband’s father was famous for building things and taking them apart. He could build and he could fix, he just didn’t seem to have enough time to finish. Sometimes he would get ideas for how he could do it better and change up in the middle of a big project multiple times.
The one I’m going to write about is my mother’s father, Poppy. I’ve written about him before, about his notebook with projects started and completed. See that here. Poppy had a workshop in his basement. It was in the old coal room. He had a workbench, a tool chest, and a bin full of small pieces of wood. He had filled up an old treadle sewing machine with a stone to sharpen knives and tools. Outside of the workshop in the main basement was a long workbench. There were short pieces of wood stored underneath. Against the wall were longer pieces. The workshop had a special smell of machine oil and wood and basement.
Poppy made furniture sometimes. Not fine pieces but basic, useful pieces. A rocking chair that sat in the upstairs hall when my mother was growing up where it was used to rock fussy babies and sick children. I remember it next his bedroom window where you could sit and rock and look out over the backyard. He made a small table that sat on the landing for the telephone. The phone had a long cord so it reached upstairs at night and downstairs during the day. He built me a wonderful two-sided dollhouse when I was about 8 and described one I had seen at a friend’s house. I was the envy of my cousin and sister. I still have it.
During the summer he set up a homemade slide when we came over. The wood was planed and sanded smooth and then waxed regularly with the ends of candles. I don’t remember any splinters. It wasn’t a very long slide and eventually it served more as a support for our tents.
Poppy built flower boxes for his back porch and the back yard as well as for his daughter’s porch. He could be seen coming up the walk to repair things with his toolbox, like a doctor coming to see a patient. I remember Saturday afternoon spent at Plymouth Congregational Church while he fixed something; often it was the temperamental furnace. Both of my grandparent’s sons died as young children so my mother spent a lot of time with her father fixing things.
My grandfather was in his eighties when things in his neighborhood became very dangerous. It was around 1968. Someone shot into the house. A man walked in to the open side door, went upstairs and went through my great, great Aunt Abbie’s things and stole some. She thought it was odd but didn’t try to stop him. Luckily he came in and out of the house without running into my grandfather. Eventually someone came to the door with a gun. Poppy slammed the door shut and fell to the floor. After this he and my parents decided to sell their houses and buy a two family flat together. They bought one out by the University of Detroit. Poppy set up his basement workshop again. He and my mother planted corn and green beans and tomatoes in every spare space in the small yard. Some days he would take a wagon and collect useful or interesting items people had thrown out around the neighborhood. It was my last year of college and I was ready to leave home. I wish now I had taken the time to sit and talk to my grandparents. Maybe they were ready to tell some of those stories I wonder about if I had just asked.
I worked all day yesterday pulling together records and information to write about why Aunt Willie might have been sitting so far from her husband, Uncle Victor, in my last weeks photo. I was going to use the photo on the left side which was taken on the same porch. I was going to talk about her relative’s memories of her as sad and obessesed with her daughter and her well being. About how her husband’s well known unfaithfulness, the death of two of her three children within three years of each other, the son her husband fathered earlier in the same year they were married and how the son, Victor Julius Tulane, and his mother lived right down the street from them in 1900.
Then I got interested in Victor Tulane’s early history, his mother who was a servant and probably former slave of Louis Tulane in Elmore County Alabama and his son, Horatio Tulane, who was twenty years her senior and Victor’s father. I was going to mention that the Tulane family recognized the relationship. How they were a merchant family and that after Victor packed his bags at age twleve and walked the 14 miles from Wetumpka to Montgomery, he became a very successful merchant too.
I was going to mention that Victor’s son, Victor Julius came to live with the family when he was in his teens and was sent to school in Michigan where he became a chemist. But at that point I decided to google Victor J. Tulane and see if I could find a picture of him because I did not have one. I like to have pictures. I had heard he looked very like Naomi, his half sister, but he had blue, blue eyes. I found two photographs of him, both from Crisis magazine. Then I thought I would look for his father. I found a group photograph with him in the Alabama Archives. I was on a roll, why not try to find a picture of Naomi’s husband, Ubert Conrad Vincent who was a well known black doctor in New York during the 1920’s. He pioneered a medical procedure that is known as the Vincent procedure. Here is where I hit the jackpot. I found an 8 page article from the Journal of the National Medical Association, 1975. That gave an in depth look at his whole medical career with 5 photographs, including one of him and his wife Naomi soon after their marriage. Naomi and Ubert’s daughter told me that they met at a cast party for the first black Broadway musical at the home of Noble Sissle so I looked for a cast photo. Found. Last, I looked for a photo of their residence on Striver’s Row in Harlem. Still there and lookin’ good.
Now I will identify the photographs in the collage above, starting from the bottom left.
1. The Crisis Jun-Jul 1959. “First Church – Dr. Victor J Tulane (L), chairman of the trustee board of the John Wesley AME Zion church, Washington, D.C., presents chairman Theodore Taylor of the Washington branch a $100 check toward his church’s NAACP life memership. …”
2. “Dr. Vincent in the door of his Sanatorium”.
3. Noble Sissle with chorus girls from the musical “Shuffle Along”.
4. “Dr. Vincent (right at table) assisting Dr. Keyes (?) in an operation at Bellevue.” (Journal of the National Medical Association January 1975)
1. The Crisis Oct 1933 ” Awards To Dr. Victor J. Tulane of the University of Michigan, election to Sigma, Xi, honorary science fraternity. Mr. Tulane was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by the University of Michigan in June.”
2. A blow up of Victor Hugh Tulane’s head from the group photo above.
3. Skipping over to the group shot on the far right of that row – from the Journal – “Dr. Vincent (right) with (from left) Dr. Marshall Ross, Hon Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, and Mayor McKee.”
1.Tuskegee College Board of Directors. Front row center is Booker T. Washington. Back row far right is Victor H. Tulane (Willie’s husband. Naomi’s father)
2. From the Journal “Dr. and Mrs. Vincent shortly after their marriage.”
3. From google street view, the place the Vincents called home.
My Aunt Gladys Cleage Evans drew this pencil sketch of me after dinner at my grandmother Cleage’s dining room table. I did a sketch of her at the same time. It has been (thankfully) lost. At some point I tore the picture out of my journal notebook and glued it into a scrapbook. This was before I knew what glue can do. I’ve cleaned it up some. Many lively political discussions took place around that table. Click for other Sepia Saturday offerings.